How to Spot and Protect Your Business from Digital Ad Fraud

Updated: Jul 10, 2024 | |

Digital fraud is a growing problem throughout Australia and across the world, and the caravan industry is not immune. Back in May, we presented at the Caravan Industry Association of Australia’s National Conference on digital fraud and how businesses in the industry can protect themselves.

From fake dealer sites to fraud in the Google display network, brand impersonation, and Facebook account hacks, in this article, we’ll guide you through the many approaches scammers are using to get away with fraud, and offer some advice to help prevent you and your business from falling victim.

Spotting Fraud Dealers

Over the last decade, fraud dealers have developed into a major problem in the industry. These dealerships pop up online with a fake website and fake listings to swindle a few deposits, before shutting up shop, only to repeat the process a few months later. Below are just a few of the fake dealer sites we have found in the last two years.

Common Traits of Fraud Dealers

Although their websites may appear legitimate, there are a few common tactics that fraudulent dealers employ that you can keep an eye out for.

Targeting Prestige Brands

Fraud dealers will almost always target prestige brands and big names like Jayco, as these are the brands that get the most searches online, and which potential buyers are always looking to make a deal on. In the photo above, the Jayco brand name is called out several times on the home page of the website, with all of the featured models also being Jaycos.

Same Content, Different Name

Fraud dealers look for the path of least resistance, and reused content is one of the dead giveaways that you’re dealing with a fraud site. The photo above looks identical to the first one we showed, with the exception of the business name (Cracking Campers instead of AR Campers and Caravans) and a few featured models. These sites were likely run by the same scammer at different points in time, although occasionally fraud sites will overlap – so if you ever see the same design or content used across two sites, steer well clear of them both.

Stolen Photos

Another favourite trick of fraud dealers is to steal photos from legitimate dealers, private listings, or photos that owners have shared online. Sometimes it is obvious, such as in the example above, where two of the listings clearly show Jayco dealership signage in the background, despite the site purporting to be its own dealership.

Even when the fraudsters have taken care not to include any such dead giveaways, it is clear when you’re looking at stock on a fraud site that all the photos have been taken in different locations, and usually with no consistency of presentation. Compare this to a legitimate dealership, which will usually have one spot on the yard that they use to photograph all their stock, as well as a consistent style and number of photos presented with each listing.

Contact Details in Multiple States

Something we have noticed while keeping tabs on fraud dealers over the years is that they will often have multiple addresses listed on their contact page, and usually in different states. This is done to aid in another aspect of the scam, whereby the fraudulent dealer will take an enquiry and then claim that the caravan in question is in another state – but don’t worry, they can arrange delivery!

Luckily, it only takes about five seconds to verify a false address on Google Maps, which is why we can say with confidence that Cracking Campers probably isn’t based in Derby, given that one of its listed addresses is currently home to an air conditioning business.

The Impact of Fraud Dealers on the Caravan Industry

As the caravan industry continues to grow, so does the number of fraud dealers, and their impact on the industry is multi-faceted. Firstly, every deposit stolen by a fraud dealer is also a sale that is stolen from a real dealer, and potentially a customer lost to the industry as a whole.

Additionally, because fraud dealers tend to advertise heavily on Google, their competition drives up the cost of advertising for real businesses, making it more difficult and more expensive for them to find customers.

How to Find Fraud Dealers

It’s better to be proactive than reactive, and now that you know what to look for, we’re going to show you how to go out there and find fraud dealers instead of waiting for them to find you.

Search for Popular Sales Terms

Fraud dealers tend to target broad, high-volume search terms in order to cast the widest net for their scam. These terms include things like:

  • Caravan for sale
  • Cheap caravan for sale
  • Caravan for sale NSW
  • Caravans near me
  • Motorhomes for sale

We always start our search with terms like this and then work our way down the results, taking a closer look at any new names we aren’t familiar with. Although this is a good place to start, it does take time to go through the results, as the first few pages will largely be dominated by legitimate companies targeting these search terms.

But if you’re looking for another way..

Use Google's Auction Insights

Auction insights reports let you see which other businesses you are competing with in Google Ads. The purpose of auction insights is to identify which ad groups, keywords and campaigns are working for you, and where you might be able to improve, allowing you to act more strategically when it comes to your ads.

However, auction insights are also incredibly useful for finding fraud sites, as these businesses tend to advertise heavily on Google and target broad keywords, as we have already mentioned. In the image above, this client’s auction insights show significant advertising competition from legitimate, well-known businesses, as we might expect. Yet there is also significant competition and advertising overlap from a number of fraud sites, which you can see highlighted in yellow.

If your business is running Google Ads, you can access auction insights in your report by clicking through the highlighted sections in the picture below.

You can then turn this into an automated report in Google’s Looker Studio, which will give you a regular update and visualisation of your competitor activity, both fraudulent and legitimate alike.

What is Being Done About Fraud Dealers?

As we’ve seen, fraudulent dealers are a disaster for customers and businesses alike, which is why it’s so important that we all remain vigilant in order to stamp them out as quickly as possible. With that said, steps are being taken to try and minimise their impact.

Perhaps the most important of these is that Google has started rolling out advertiser verification, which requires all advertisers to undergo a verification process in order to continue using the platform. Although this process is ongoing and likely to be slow, at the very least it will help lower the cost of advertising for genuine businesses, as they will no longer be competing with fraudulent advertisers.

What Can You Do in the Meantime?

While fraud will remain an issue wherever there is money to be made, we can all do our part to disrupt fraudsters by learning the telltale signs of a fraud dealer and reporting them as soon as they emerge. The ACCC is currently keeping a close eye on fraud in the caravan industry, and any suspected fraudulent sites should be reported through Scamwatch, and also reported to the CIAA.

Fraud in the Google Display Network

So far, we’ve talked about how fraudulent dealers drive up the cost of advertising on Google by competing with legitimate businesses, but there is a whole other kind of fraud that takes place in the world of Google Ads.

Made for advertising (MFA) sites are one of the banes of the Google Display Network, and while they aren’t stealing deposits and souring buyers on the industry like fraud dealers are, they are responsible for billions of dollars of wasted ad spend every year. We have written a full guide on the impact of MFA sites, how to spot them, and how to avoid them, which we recommend reading, but for now, we’ll give you a quick overview of they work.

What is an MFA Site?

Google’s Display Network is one of its primary ad networks (along with Search, Video, and Shopping) and is made up of approximately 35 million websites, reaching over 90% of internet users worldwide. The image above shows a display ad on the CNN website.

As the name suggests, an MFA site is one that is set up for the sole purpose of running ads. These sites are often low-quality, use recycled or stolen content, and spam high numbers of ads or use clickbait tactics to drive engagement. The result is that you end up paying for ads that have little chance of converting, and end up languishing on sites that will never deliver an ROI – we’ve even seen cases where up to 70% of a client’s ads were running on MFA sites.

How to Find MFA Sites

Luckily, identifying MFA sites is fairly straightforward. Here’s how you do it.

  1. Go into your Google Ads dashboard, and scroll down to the Content section, highlighted in the image above.
  2. Click the section titled Where ads showed and filter for a click-through rate (CTR) of less than 1%.
  3. Search through the list of websites and apps for any that look low-quality, or have tell-tale signs of being an MFA site. Common names and domains that frequently appear on MFA sites include words such as: games, toy, play, meditation, baby, child, children etc.

Masking and Apps

Many MFA sites will attempt to hide in plain sight through what we call masking – in other words, trying to appear as legitimate. The second site in the list below appears to be Buzz Feed at first glance, when in fact it is an MFA site.

With that said, it is important not to become overly focused on looking for sites, as a significant portion of ad fraud occurs on apps. Take the example below: 60% of this client’s budget was in app advertising, with decent sums going to MFA apps with abysmal click-through rates.

How to Protect Yourself Against MFA Sites

There are a number of ways to protect yourself and your ad budget against MFA sites. Here are some of our favourites.

Whitelisting

A whitelist is a list of approved sites that gives you more control over where your ads appear. By curating a list of reputable, high-quality sites, you can avoid pouring your ad budget down the drain that is MFA sites. Here’s how you develop a whitelist.

  1. Research and Identify: Compile a list of sites that align with your brand’s values and have a track record of delivering quality content and engagement.
  2. Use Google Ads Tools: Utilise the targeting options in Google Ads to specify where your ads should be displayed.
  3. Regular Review and Update: The digital landscape is ever-changing. Regularly review and update your whitelists to include new reputable sites and remove those that no longer meet your standards.

Exclusions

Just as you can whitelist reputable sites, you can also exclude those sites and apps that you don’t want your ads to appear on. The photo above shows you how to access exclusions in the Google Ads dashboard.

Facebook Ad Fraud

Facebook isn’t immune from fraud either unfortunately, and it is estimated that $81 billion was lost to social media ad fraud worldwide in 2022, with that number expected to exceed $100 billion in 2024. Facebook ad fraud is a serious and expensive business – we know that better than anyone, because it happened to us.

The photo above is a notification we received last year of a suspicious login on our account. Within minutes, the hackers had removed our login credentials from the account, and proceeded to set up ad campaigns with budgets of $50,000 a day.

Luckily, one of our ads managers spotted the fraudulent campaigns shortly after they were created and with some quick action, we were able to get the campaigns disabled within just 59 minutes of the ads going live. All up, those 59 minutes cost us $1500.

But that’s just one example, and we were one of the lucky ones. Throughout Australia and across the world, social media ad fraud is on the rise, with small businesses overwhelmingly becoming the targets. In Australia, there has been a 120% increase in ad fraud targeting small businesses since July 2022, while some states in the US have experienced an 700% increase in social media fraud in recent years.

For most of those businesses, resolution doesn’t come as swiftly as it did for us. Back in April, the ABC reported a story about a gym owner in Melbourne who had been locked out of her Facebook account for 9 months following a hack much like the one we experienced. While she was able to recover the lost ad spend with help from the bank, the owner estimated that the drawn out account recovery and loss of access to her main advertising platform had cost her business tens of thousands of dollars.

What to Watch Out for on Facebook

Not every scam will involve a hacker trying to gain access to your account however. Facebook fraud can come in many different forms, but all share one aim: to seperate you from your money.

Brand Impersonation

Brand impersonation is when a scammer creates a fake page of a well-known brand in an attempt to fool consumers. These pages will create posts or run ads with the aim of luring users off-platform with enticing offers, and can be identified by having one or more of the following.

  • Page is a variation of the brand name, e.g. ‘Woolworths Store’
  • Poor or inconsistent spelling and grammar
  • Page is normally new and has little posting history.
  • Unrealistic hooks i.e. free products, 99% off.
  • Poorly photoshopped photos.

Counterfeit Products

Counterfeit products are one of the oldest scams in the business, and one that scammers tend to put low effort into. Although it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between an ad for a counterfeit product and poor quality creative from a genuine brand, there are a few giveaways:

  • The page is promoting premium or well-known products
  • Page name doesn’t match the product advertised
  • Page name is a basic variation of a brand name e.g. ‘Gucci for less’
  • Page may be new or has no organic history
  • Unrealistic hook or offer e.g. 90% off, lowest prices seen etc.

Phishing Scams

Phishing scams are employed by scammers to obtain money or personal information that can be used to compromise your bank account. Everyone knows the classic Nigerian Prince Scam, but phishing attacks now are increasingly sophisticated, with scammers appearing under the guise of a real company or service, such as the example above, where the scammers are posing as Meta Business Support.

One constant of all phishing attacks is that the scammer will try and send you off-platform with an external link. In order to do so, they will usually create a sense of urgency by threatening things like account deactivation or fines to get victims to click the links. Below are some of the key signs of a phishing attack, and steps you can take if you are suspicious about a request you have received.

  • Incorrect profile name and image
  • Check if the profile exists i.e. not a deleted user
  • Poor/inconsistent spelling and grammar
  • Asking for an urgent action to be taken via an external link
  • A request for payment

How You Can Protect Yourself Against Facebook Fraud

Although Facebook hacks and ad fraud may be increasing, there are several proven steps you can take to protect yourself and your business.

Enable Security Features

Most platforms have two-factor authentication. If this isn’t already enabled, do so. Facebook also has additional features in the security centre, including ‘trusted domain emails’.

Listen to Social Chatter

Invest time into social listening. Is there an unexpected spike in brand mentions? It might be nothing, but it’s better to be safe than to find out you have been a victim of ad fraud. 

Be Proactive

Don’t bury your head in the sand. If you do become a victim of ad fraud, address it and be transparent. Your customers are more understanding than you think.

Trust Retain Media for the Latest Digital Insights

Fraud is a growing issue for consumers and businesses of all shapes and sizes, but you don’t need to let the threat of it derail your chances of finding success online. At Retain Media, we are ever alert to the dangers of fraud, and have helped dozens of customers safeguard against fraud and get more out of their ad campaigns.

If you’re struggling to make an impact with your ads, it might be time to talk. Contact us today to arrange a free, no-obligation consultation, and start making the most of your ad budget.

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